Monday, May 25, 2020

Summertime Blues, a 2020 version

Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start of summer, but oh! what mixed messages this year as the USA approaches a...

Posted by Jay Harvey on Monday, May 25, 2020

Saturday, May 16, 2020

'Blended Lineage': David Bixler's mixed results in suite on theme of tribes

Current political and social commentary tends to tsk-tsk at "tribalism," suggesting a regression from civilized norms.  Pushing back against such connotations, alto saxophonist David Bixler leads a five-man group he calls the Bixtet, supplemented by a string quartet, in a commissioned work on the theme of tribes.

"Blended Lineage" (Red Piano Records) is a 34-minute suite in which the composer's forces are well-
Composer-saxophonist David Bixler
distributed, but sometimes seem to be searching for musical substance. Bixler has said he deliberately accentuated the positive (to use Johnny Mercer's phrase) in writing the work. The ferocity and insularity of tribal identity clearly held little appeal to him.

Ensemble virtues fade a bit into the background in the finale,"My Soul Swoons Softly," a phrase borrowed somewhat disconcertingly from James Joyce's eulogistic short story "The Dead." Bixler makes this summing-up an alto-sax showcase. That cuts against the ensemble focus of the rest of "Blended Lineage," but it's meant to emphasize the personal import of the theme.

Even when the string quartet sits out, in "Motherland," the suite usually maintains a nifty balance of instruments. Thus, in "My Soul Swoons Softly," the way the strings seem to be coming in from a distance may well be an artistic decision rather than an engineering flaw. I guess it's designed to represent the soul's soft swooning, a risky area for music to settle into, but a plausible foray here.

Here's a contrast: In the suite's opening section, "Origins," the string quartet partners steadily with Jon Cowherd's piano after the deliberately careful jelling of the material. Bixler's tone is reflective, soft-edged, and verges on the lugubrious.

The positive message becomes more explicit in "Motherland," a tribute to Bixler's Wisconsin heritage. There's energy in the theme that the alto sax shares with trumpeter Mike Rodriguez. The open-road feeling evokes for me memories of motoring along the rolling farm country of the state with my wife and her mother (both native Badgers). The tune's ending kicks up agreeably.

My favorite track is "Trenches," where both the theme and its treatment are edgy. The trenches of the  title allude to the life of musicians, often struggling to maintain a foothold, especially since mid-March. I like the way the anxiety of that lifestyle is both tamed and projected through the music. The Rodriguez solo in particular displays the mood. The strings seem more than window dressing, and there's some fine interplay near the end in patterns placed on top of Fabio Rojas' drums.

Luke Sellick completes the Bixtet personnel on bass. The string quartet comprises Judith Ingolfsson, gold medalist in the 1998 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, violinist Heather Martin Bixler, violist Josh Kail, and cellist Rubin Kodheli.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Putting a long-form feeling into compact new works: Sebastien Ammann's 'Resilience'

Sebastien Ammann shows off his keyboard chops chiefly in the title tune of his new CD. But
it's his composer-bandleader acuity that moves his band, Color Wheel, into applying its own signature to "Resilience"  (Skirl Records) and making the band memorable.

Sebastien Ammann contemplates form and space.
The Swiss keyboardist wrote seven of the nine pieces on the recording. Each piece establishes itself; it sets down on a firm footing right away. No wonder he's attracted to the direct quirkiness of Carla Bley's "King Korn Revisited,"  the more notable of the two borrowings.

I found the pensive, diffuse work called "The Traveller" a bit inclined to woolgathering, but the personality behind it was clear. This band, often making a point of individualism, still seems well matched internally. Besides Ammann, they are Michael Attias, alto saxophone; Samuel Blaser, trombone; Noah Garabedian, bass, and Nathan Ellman-Bell drums.

Blaser has a liquescent tone and an immense reach of range and expression. His solo on "Untangled" is masterly, especially in the way it leads into the ensemble's re-entry. I like the way he seems to sum up everything about "The Traveller," too, giving coherence to the piece's peregrinations.

"Afterthought" allows lots of room for Attias' sometimes assertive, sometimes inquisitive alto sax, and Ammann's eccentric but generally apt accompaniment patterning comes off very well here.

"Pedestrian Space" is something we all need in these social-distancing times. The nervous energy of the percussion figures finds Attias and Blaser's adroitness giving an amusing urban profile to what comes close to barnyard noises we haven't heard since the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. This is whimsy taken to an offhand application of virtuosity. The whole CD manages to present an appealing blend of sophistication and naivete.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Bob Dylan said a mouthful in 'Subterraean Homesick Blues"; here's a mouthful of Covid-19 stuff: 'Subterranean Homeland Blues'


Surterranean Homeland Blues

Tony’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
Donald’s tweets won’t relent
Bragging about the government
Doctor in a white coat
License out, laid off
Said he’s got a bad cough
All his chips are played off

Look out for Covid
You gotta stay hid
No one knows when
You can come out again
Keep at least six feet away
Don’t look for a new friend
Reopen protester among armed men
Wants 11 explanations, you only got ten.

Pence comes blank-faced
Always close to Trump placed
Giving the boss praise
Presidential hopes raised
Trump says that many say
Must resume by end of May
Keep America great, hey!

But look out, kid
Don’t matter what you did
Try to blame the Fake News
Why lead? Just refuse
Can’t be a shipping clerk
Got duties?  Try to shirk
Stand still, don’t twerk
Stay aloof, that’ll work.
You don’t need the media
To know which way the wind blows.

Ah, get sick, get well
Little tracing, hard to tell
What policy will sell.
Lie hard, truth barred
Many ventilators fail
Governors turn pale
Time to bail, let ‘em wail
Look out for Covid, it wants to get rid
Of insiders, outsiders, health-care providers
Don’t worry ‘bout the gene pool
Many more folks to fool
Keep the same leaders
In virtual theaters.

Ah, get born, keep warm
Is that a fever or romance
Learn to dance, get fixed in politics
All the messages are mixed
Please Trump, please Pence, they’re adrift
Can’t heal, try to shift
Three years in the White House
Feeling slighted, he’s miffed
Look out till we’re rid of the evil Covid
Better jump down a manhole
Of isolation lighting candles
Chill in pajamas, wear old sandals
Can’t keep up with all the scandals
Public health don’t work
Cause the vandals took the handles

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Making a political point through abstract music: What to make of 'Hypocrisy Democracy'?

Dave Glasser's privileging of political unease, a feeling shared by many nowadays, struggles for musical expression in "Hypocrisy Democracy" (Here Tiz Music).

The alto saxophonist builds on the jingle-jangle of his unusual title to set down a critique of the system that both sustains and undermines us. It's not irrelevant that he's the son of Ira Glasser, former  executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. That connection also boosted his musical interests insofar as, through the jazz commentator and Bill of Rights defender Nat Hentoff,  he met and studied with the late Lee Konitz, a key figure in jazz alto sax independent of the pervasive Charlie Parker influence.

The music carries no text, so associations with the bandleader's political perspective must be gleaned from the composition titles, where those apply. When I hear "Justice," for example, I'm not sure how justice applies to the music. My main complaint on musical grounds is that many of the tracks seem evasive, despite the evident rapport of Glasser with pianist Andy Milne,  bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson. I often get the feeling that there's a drive to resist whatever implications a given tune sets up.

This persists despite Glasser's declared interest in rooting his music in the jazz heritage. This is explicit in "Dilemonk," a slow bluesy piece including a definitive Allison solo. The Thelonious Monk misterioso vein is evoked, though I was puzzled by the news release description of the approach as "skulking."

Dave Glasser has an agenda.
Glasser's unforced lyricism and abstract inventiveness clearly draw upon the Konitz influence with his solo in "Coffee, Dogs, and Telelogs." There's a rare use of paraphrase ("Fascinating Rhythm") in, unfortunately, yet another example of a piece seemingly trying to escape itself. Another nod to tradition is "Revolver," whose form derives from the Great American Songbook and whose essence seems to be Rodgers and Hart's "Lover."

A pleasant surprise is the inclusion of the Disney favorite "It's a Small World," for which Glasser turns to flute. The interpretation is rooted in Glasser's memory of struggle to be musical as a little boy (the program note in this case is illuminating) and coming out on top. The performance is gratifyingly centered, and not just because it's based on a quite familiar tune. I also liked the direct tribute to his mentor, "Glee for Lee," harmonically untethered but not irresolute,  in the best Konitz tradition.

A prominent statement from Glasser on the jacket is worth an eye-roll: "My hope is this recording will stimulate thought and converse towards a more peaceful, sustainable existence." Make of that what you will, but Glasser's music, though conflicted, is not without charm, with a lot of credit going to his capable bandmates.

I was even delighted by Glasser's company name (Here Tiz), reminding me of a less complicated jazzman of long ago, Fats Waller. Introducing "Moppin' and Boppin'," the inimitable singer-pianist says: "Want some more of that mess? Well, here 'tis. Zutty [Singleton], take over. Pour it on!" That's the kind of spirit I think most fans want more of from jazz, and less musicianly ax-grinding.